Return of the punishment debate

January 09, 2014
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Who said what to whom? Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-General, told the House of Commons on Tuesday that he referred 67 sentences to the Court of Appeal during 2013 on the basis that they were “unduly lenient” and needed review. Under pressure from other MPs in the Chamber, he said that he would look at the case for expanding the range of offences for which he can make a referral.

What does it mean? The Attorney-General’s power to refer sentences because they are “unduly lenient” is a pressure release valve by which he can respond to media or political criticism (or his own conscience) that a particular offender has got away with too short a sentence, or that a particular category of crimes (the examples quoted by other MPs were child sex abuse and knife use) aren’t being punished sufficiently harshly by judges.

What could go wrong? Dominic Grieve is referring far fewer sentences to the Court of Appeal than his Labour predecessors. From 2001 to 2009 the average was around 130 per year, double that which Grieve has referred in 2013. Numbers have fallen consistently since his appointment in 2010. Put that together with the facts that the average sentence length for offenders is decreasing, as is the proportion that they actually spend in prison, and the Conservative trio of Criminal Justice Ministers, Dominic Grieve, Jeremy Wright and Chris Grayling might appear surprisingly “soft on crime”. Another way to look at it is that they recognise that sending people to prison isn’t a complete answer to reducing reoffending.

Labour is beginning to toy with the idea of attacking them from “the right” on this, given Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan’s recent criticisms about the high proportion of offenders committing sexual assault or burglary crimes who avoid prison sentences.

When will we know? Crime hasn’t been on the political agenda much since 2010 but it may only take a handful of high-profile incidents to bring it back into play. So far “the permanent campaign” has been about economic policy, the time for some social might be overdue.

Commitment rating: 3 Dominic Grieve is a widely respected Attorney-General, often fighting the good fight inside his party in defence of the Human Rights Act, but he seems to recognise the need for some flexibility on sentencing in response to political pressure. Depending on how Labour chooses to play this, or bad luck and media reporting, sentencing and crime might return to the political spotlight in coming months.